Please spy on us, say Americans

“As a Signals Intelligence officer it is continually drilled into us that the very first law chiseled in the SIGINT equivalent of the Ten Commandments is that thou shall not spy on American persons without a court order from FISA,” said former National Security Agency employee Russell Tice. “The very people that lead the National Security Agency have violated this holy edict of SIGINT.”

“It’s drilled into you from minute one that you should not ever, ever, ever, under any fucking circumstances turn this massive apparatus on an American citizen,” another member of the intelligence community said. “You do a lot of weird shit. But at least you don’t fuck with your own people.”

It seems that the rules have changed.

After Thursday’s revelation that the NSA is collecting billions of telephone call records for data mining and social network analysis, which I’ll explain shortly, millions of words have been written, both about the program and about people’s reactions to the program. Much of what’s been written is complete crap.

Take for instance Friday’s AP wire story on the program, in which “technology writer” Brian Bergstein fails to get even the most basic facts about the Internet right. Consider: “And while e-mail, Internet calls and other data packets splinter and take varying routes across networks, each packet has a header identifying its source and destination. It’s not obvious what the packet is part of whether an e-mail, a Web page or an Internet phone call but it still contains the equivalent of a phone billing record: who’s talking to whom.” The truth is that Internet packets identify source, destination and a unique port number for each. Certain port numbers correspond to specific services, such as sending E-mail, web pages, secure web pages, etc. And even the simplest network monitoring tools will tell you, given even a single packet, to which of these protocols it belongs, if any.

When it can’t get basic background information correct, I begin to wonder what else the mainstream media — not to mention the blogosphere — is getting wrong?

But the crap isn’t what I want to focus on. Instead, I want to focus on the bigger picture.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing is the virtual non-reaction from the American public. It seems that most people don’t care if Big Brother watches them.

“After 9/11 our world has changed,” [Verizon customer Mark] Jellison said yesterday, standing outside a grocery store in Dorchester. “Prior to 9/11, I would have been more concerned, but I’m less concerned today.”

Added William MacKenzie, a Verizon customer from Taunton: “I have nothing to hide, so I don’t have a problem with it. If it’s for the security of the country, it’s OK with me.” — Boston Globe

That’s not just Boston. A poll shows that almost 2/3 of Americans don’t care if the NSA knows who they personally talk to on the phone, and about the same number find nothing wrong with NSA collecting data on every American’s telephone calls.

After all, we have to catch those terrorists, wherever they’re hiding.

Nick Gillespie of Reason rightly calls this the epitaph for freedom in the U.S. The stuff written by Big Brother’s apologists pretending to be conservatives, frankly, isn’t worth the two hours I wasted reading even a small sample of it.

But why do people take off their clothes in public for any cop passing by and show, if not their private parts, their private business, to any government bureaucrat who asks? They have nothing to hide, they say. And while that might be true, there are very good reasons why they should be hiding it anyway:

It’s important to link this up to the broader chain. One thing the Bush administration says it can do with this meta-data is to start tapping your calls and listening in, without getting a warrant from anyone. Having listened in on your calls, the administration asserts that if it doesn’t like what it hears, it has the authority to detain you indefinitely without trial or charges, torture you until you confess or implicate others, extradite you to a Third World country to be tortured, ship you to a secret prison facility in Eastern Europe, or all of the above. If, having kidnapped and tortured you, the administration determines you were innocent after all, you’ll be dumped without papers somewhere in Albania left to fend for yourself. — Matthew Yglesias

Security expert Bruce Schneier comments: “Judicial oversight is a security system, and unchecked military and police power is a security threat.”

Finally, there’s that data mining and social network analysis thing, which some experts think is a complete waste of time in trying to find previously unknown terrorists. If, after fully understanding how this works and what it’s meant to do, Americans still want Big Brother watching, then this country has officially jumped the shark and they aren’t worth saving.

Russell Tice, a former N.S.A. employee who worked on highly classified Special Access Programs, says that analysts start with a suspect and “spider-web” outward, looking at everyone he contacts, and everyone those people contact, until the list includes thousands of names. Officials familiar with the program have said that before individuals are actually wiretapped, computers sort through flows of metadata — information about who is contacting whom by phone or e-mail. An unclassified National Science Foundation report says that one tool analysts use to sort through all that data is link analysis. . . .

The problem is that most of us are connected by two degrees of separation to thousands of people, and by three degrees to hundreds of thousands. This explains reports that the overwhelming number of leads generated by the N.S.A. program have been false positives — innocent civilians implicated in an ever-expanding associational web. — The Century Foundation

Thousands upon thousands of them. NSA’s data mining kicks up some phone numbers, it throws them over the wall at the FBI without saying what they’re for or why, the FBI checks them out, and finds nothing but innocent Americans confused at why the FBI was investigating them in the first place. This is only the beginning.

One thought on “Please spy on us, say Americans

  • May 13, 2006 at 10:31 am

    i think if nothing else, this has illustrated the problem to lots of us who dont think about it.
    and Toronto is sounding better & better. 🙂
    ‘hello nsa people, yes hes my roommate, and yes, i agree with him.’

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